As a child, growing up in a conservative Christian household and an evangelical church in the South, I was exposed to end times prophecy throughout most of my formative years, and I must admit, I found it very frightening. The thought that, at any minute, people were going to be called up into the heavens, and those left behind would have to suffer through the reign of the Antichrist was the cause of many nightmares, constantly worrying that I wasn’t living the type of life most likely to spare me from the tribulation. Now forty or more years later, we’re well past the 1980s, when most of the prophecies I heard as a child were to be fulfilled and absolutely none of the events have occurred as they were predicted. My guess is, they’ll never be fulfilled.
My main source for end time prophecies when I was younger was Hal Lindsey in his The Late Great Planet Earth, and 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon. The Late Great Planet Earth correctly predicted troubles in Iran before the Islamic Revolution occurred there, and Countdown to Armageddon targeted the year 1988 as the time when we’d see the Antichrist rise and take over the world. This estimation came from calculating one generation following when Israel was recognized as a country in 1948, with a generation calculated in biblical terms as forty years. As it turned out, all we got in the United States in 1988 was the election of George H. W. Bush as president, and while he was named as a contender for the Antichrist by some — as many presidents have been — he never took dominion over all the world, nor dictated that those without a certain mark on their hands or foreheads would be unable to buy, sell or trade anything. There were others who used the Quatrains of Nostradamus to predict calamities befalling the earth, not to mention all other manner of doomsday preachers and self-stilled prophets of destruction. Oddly enough, most of this fervor for the end of days quieted down after the year 2000.
The Antichrist holds a particular fascination for those who follow end times prophecy, and many people have been named as strong contenders for the role, with much “evidence” to support the claim. In my lifetime, the following people have been identified as possibilities for the Antichrist: Nelson Rockefeller, Muammar Gaddafi, Ronald Reagan, both Bush presidents, Saddam Hussein, whoever happens to be the Secretary General of the United Nations at any given time, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, Hafez al-Assad, Louis Farrakhan, Anwar Sadat, Yasser Arafat, Ted Kennedy, and Barack Obama. Look at that list. While there are a few similarities between say Arafat and al-Assad, there’s almost no common ground between Obama and the Bushes, or Reagan and Rev. Moon. In fact, just about anyone who assumes authority in any capacity worldwide could be said to fulfill many of the requirements of the Antichrist as they are rather vague and couched in symbolic language.
End times prophecy has been part of Christianity since before the beginning, since many cite the Book of Daniel, which predates Christianity by a hundred or more years, as an early Apocalypse. The Gospels tell us that John the Baptist warned his followers, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” and no less an authority than Jesus himself weighed in on the coming of the kingdom. “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (With some variations, Mark 9:1, Matthew 16:28, Luke 9:27). Despite this, much of what we recognize as end times prophecy comes from two sources, the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, and the Apocalypse or Revelation of John in the New Testament. Both books, while certainly apocalyptic, were probably more about the times in which they were written than about some unforeseen era thousands of years removed, just as science fiction writers of today set stories in the future in order to comment on events and occurrences in today’s society. Jules Verne correctly predicted humans would one day be able to travel under the oceans, and H. G. Wells wrote of a futuristic world-wide conflict, yet no one identifies either of them as prophets in the sense of Daniel or John.
Bending the stories in Daniel or Revelation into futuristic prophecies does a disservice to the very real people who suffered very real persecution under dictators like Nero in Rome and Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucids, who were much more the embodiment of the Antichrist than any modern religious or political leader will ever be. Martyrs were martyrs for a reason. They were viciously slaughtered for their beliefs, not simply counseled to wish someone “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Modern Christians in most Western industrialized nations should have a talk with their counterparts in places like Egypt, Pakistan and North Korea if they think that not being allowed to display a nativity scene on public property is the greatest threat to their beliefs. The mere fact that those who profess to be Christians in the United States are able to complain so vehemently every time some public policy goes against their beliefs, demonstrates why claims of persecution often fall on deaf ears. In fact, the greatest threat facing most traditional Christian churches in America today is the rise of more evangelical Christian sects, aggressively recruiting members for their mega-churches.
This is not to say there have not been attacks on believers and places of worship in the United States, but the motivation behind these assaults is usually not the faith of those targeted. The recent murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina was motivated by race and not religion, as many such attacks in the U.S. have tended to be. If this had been meant as an attack on Christianity, any church anywhere would have sufficed, but the shooter chose a specific church that’s been a cornerstone of the African American community for more than a century. In fact, prior to the attack in Charleston, and the recent fires at other Black churches throughout the South, most of the times when Christian churches were targeted for violence in the United States over the past century, it was in places like Alabama and Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement, once again targeting African Americans, and most of those who carried out the violence or condoned it professed to be Christians themselves.
With regards to the anticipated “end of days,” it makes absolutely no sense that any sort of supreme being would go to the trouble of creating the world and populating it with all manner of diverse creatures with the singular goal of destroying it. A being that is all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-loving should have far more options in dealing with it’s creations than the total destruction of all life on the planet. Throughout the Bible, we see the evolution of this supreme being from the angry and vengeful YHWH of Genesis to the loving heavenly father spoken of by Paul and echoed in the Gospels. Obviously, the world will end some day — scientists have determined it to be inevitable — but to rationalize it as some sort of divine plan of retribution makes a mockery of the notion of a loving and forgiving god who’s in charge of everything. Most parents don’t become parents just to murder their children. This is not to say parents, even mothers, don’t kill their children, but it’s a serious divergence from the norm, rather than commonplace. If humans, the most disruptive species on the planet, can learn to live and let live, certainly the creator of the universe can come to a similar conclusion.
End times predictions and their consequences are exclusively the domain of humans. It’s highly doubtful that reptiles, birds, fish, or other large mammals such as lions, bears, or chimpanzees have provoked the wrath of a supreme being to the extent that all life must be eradicated, yet they’re just as much a part of the world as we are and would suffer equally if such an entity suddenly decided to end everything in a fiery cataclysm just to teach humans a lesson. The dinosaurs existed for millions of years, and no one has ever attributed their mass extinction to the wrath of a supreme being, even though it most likely occurred as a result of a natural phenomenon such as a comet or volcano. Rather than anticipate or even welcome such a cataclysm, humans would be better served trying to make life on earth more manageable, by not driving other species to extinction or using up the Earth’s resources as though they’re our exclusive property to waste as we choose. If we could spend a little time each day trying to make the world a better place, before long, we might just discover the heaven many aspire to is right here on Earth.